The Celts or Kelts were an ethnolinguistic group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Medieval Europe who spoke Celtic languages and had a similar culture, although the relationship between the ethnic, linguistic and cultural elements remains uncertain and controversial.
The earliest archaeological culture that may justifiably be considered Proto-Celtic is the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture of Central Europe, which flourished from around 1200 BC. Their fully Celtic descendants in central Europe were the people of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria. By the later La Txne period (c. 450 BC up to the Roman conquest), this Celtic culture had expanded by diffusion or migration to the British Isles (Insular Celts), France and The Low Countries (Gauls), Bohemia, Poland and much of Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula (Celtiberians, Celtici and Gallaeci) and northern Italy (Golaseccans and Cisalpine Gauls) and, following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans in 279 BC, as far east as central Anatolia (Galatians).
Beginning in 2010, it was tentatively proposed that the language of the Tartessian inscriptions of south Portugal and southwest Spain is a Celtic one; however, this interpretation has largely been rejected by the academic community.
The earliest undisputed direct examples of a Celtic language are the Lepontic inscriptions, beginning in the 6th century BC. Continental Celtic languages are attested almost exclusively through inscriptions and place-names. Insular Celtic is attested beginning around the 4th century through ogham inscriptions, although it was clearly being spoken much earlier. Celtic literary tradition begins with Old Irish texts around the 8th century. Coherent texts of Early Irish literature, such as the Txin Bx Cxailnge, survive in 12th-century recensions.
By the mid 1st millennium AD, with the expansion of the Roman Empire and the Great Migrations of Germanic peoples, Celtic culture and Insular Celtic had become restricted to Ireland, the western and northern parts of Great Britain (Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall), the Isle of Man, and Brittany. Between the 5th and eighth centuries, the Celtic-speaking communities in these Atlantic regions emerged as a reasonably cohesive cultural entity. They had a common linguistic, religious, and artistic heritage that distinguished them from the culture of the surrounding polities. By the 6th century, however, the Continental Celtic languages were no longer in wide use.
Insular Celtic culture diversified into that of the Gaels and the Brythonic Celts (Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons) of the medieval and modern periods. A modern “Celtic identity” was constructed as part of the Romanticist Celtic Revival in Great Britain, Ireland, and other European territories, such as Portugal and Spanish Galicia. Today, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton are still spoken in parts of their historical territories, and Cornish and Manx are undergoing a revival.
The 1st recorded use of the word Celts to refer to an ethnic group was by Hecataeus of Miletus, the Greek geographer, in 517 BC, when writing about a people living near “Massilia” (Marseille). According to the testimony of Julius Caesar and Strabo, the Latin name Celtus (pl. Celti or Celtae) and the Greek Κέλτης (pl. Κέλται) or Κελτός (pl. Κελτοί) were borrowed from a native Celtic tribal name. Pliny the Elder cited its use in Lusitania as a tribal surname, which epigraphic findings have confirmed.
Latin Gallus might originally be from a Celtic ethnic or tribal name, perhaps borrowed into Latin during the Celtic expansions into Italy of the early 5th century BC. Its root may be the Common Celtic *galno, meaning power or strength. Galli, Gallaeci and Galatae most probably go with Old Irish gal ‘boldness, ferocity’ and Welsh gallu ‘to be able, power’. The Greek Galatai seems to be based on the same root, borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (see Galatia in Anatolia).
Celt is a modern English word; its 1st attested use is in 1707, in the writing of Edward Lhuyd, whose work, along with that of other late 17th-century scholars, brought academic attention to the languages and history of the early Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain. The English form Gaul and Gaulish come from the French Gaule and Gaulois, which translate Latin Gallia and Gallus, -icus respectively. In Old French, the words gualeis, galois, walois (Northern French phonetics keeping /w/) had different meanings: Welsh or the Langue d’oxl, etc. On the other hand, the word Waulle (Northern French phonetics keeping /w/) is recorded for the 1st time in the 13th century to translate the Latin word Gallia, while gaulois is recorded for the 1st time in the 15th century, and the scholars use it to translate the Latin words Gallus, Gallicus. The word comes from Proto-Germanic *Walha- (see Gaul: Name). The English word Welsh originates from the word wxlisċ, the Anglo-Saxon form of *walhiska-, the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word for ‘foreign’ or ‘Celt’ (South German Welsch(e) ‘Celtic speaker’, ‘French speaker’, ‘Italian speaker’; Old Norse valskr pl. valir ‘Gaulish’, ‘French’), that is supposed to be derived of the name of the Volcae, a Celtic tribe who lived 1st in the South of Germany and emigrated then to Gaul.
The relatively modern idea of an identifiable Celtic cultural identity or “Celticity” generally focuses on similarities among languages, works of art, and classical texts, and sometimes also among material artifacts, social organisation, homeland and mythology. Earlier theories held that these similarities suggest a common racial origin for the various Celtic peoples, but more recent theories hold that they reflect a common cultural and language heritage more than a genetic one. Celtic cultures seem to have been widely diverse, with the use of a Celtic language being the main thing they have in common.
Continental Celts are the Celtic-speaking people of mainland Europe and Insular Celts are the Celtic-speaking peoples of the British and Irish islands and their descendants. The Celts of Brittany derive their language from migrating insular Celts, mainly from Wales and Cornwall, and so are grouped accordingly.
The Celtic languages form a branch of the larger Indo-European family. By the time speakers of Celtic languages enter history around 400 BC, they were already split into several language groups, and spread over much of Western continental Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland and Britain.
Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture of Western Middle Europe represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from ca. 1200 BC until 700 BC, itself following the Unetice and Tumulus cultures. The Urnfield period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices. The Greek historian Ephoros of Cyme in Asia Minor, writing in the 4th century BC, believed that the Celts came from the islands off the mouth of the Rhine and were “driven from their homes by the frequency of wars and the violent rising of the sea”.
The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture directly from the Urnfield. Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is considered by this school of thought to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early 1st millennium BC. The spread of the Celtic languages to Iberia, Ireland and Britain would have occurred during the 1st half of the 1st millennium BC, the earliest chariot burials in Britain dating to c. 500 BC. Other scholars see Celtic languages as covering Britain and Ireland, and parts of the Continent, long before any evidence of “Celtic” culture is found in archaeology. Over the centuries the language(s) developed into the separate Celtiberian, Goidelic and Brythonic languages.
The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Txne culture of central Europe, which was overrun by the Roman Empire, though traces of La Txne style are still to be seen in Gallo-Roman artefacts. In Britain and Ireland La Txne style in art survived precariously to re-emerge in Insular art. Early Irish literature casts light on the flavour and tradition of the heroic warrior elites who dominated Celtic societies. Celtic river-names are found in great numbers around the upper reaches of the Danube and Rhine, which led many Celtic scholars to place the ethnogenesis of the Celts in this area.
The Proto-Celtic language is usually dated to the Late Bronze Age. The earliest records of a Celtic language are the Lepontic inscriptions of Cisalpine Gaul, the oldest of which still predate the La Txne period. Other early inscriptions are Gaulish, appearing from the early La Txne period in inscriptions in the area of Massilia, in the Greek alphabet. Celtiberian inscriptions appear comparatively late, after about 200 BC. Evidence of Insular Celtic is available only from about 400 AD, in the form of Primitive Irish Ogham inscriptions. Besides epigraphical evidence, an important source of information on early Celtic is toponymy.
Before the 19th century, scholars assumed that the original land of the Celts was west of the Rhine, more precisely in Gaul, because it was where Greek and Roman ancient sources, namely Caesar, located the Celts. This view was challenged by Jubainville who placed the land of origin of the Celts east of the Rhine. Jubainville based his arguments on a phrase of Herodotus’ that placed the Celts at the source of the Danube, and argued that Herodotus had meant to place the Celtic homeland in southern Germany. The finding of the prehistoric cemetery of Hallstat in 1846 by Johan Ramsauer and the finding of the archaeological site of La Txne by Hansli Kopp in 1857 drew attention to this area. The concept that the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures could be seen not just as chronological periods but as “Culture Groups”, entities composed of people of the same ethnicity and language, started to grow by the end of the 19th century. In the beginning of the 20th century the belief that those “Culture Groups” could be thought in racial or ethnic terms was strongly held by Gordon Childe whose theory was influenced by the writings of Gustaf Kossinna. Along the 20th century the racial ethnic interpretation of La Tene culture rooted much stronger, and any findings of “La Tene culture” and “flat inhumation cemeteries” were directly associated with the celts and the Celtic language. The Iron Age Hallstatt and La Txne (c. 500–50 BC) cultures are typically associated with Proto-Celtic and Celtic culture.
In various academic disciplines the Celts were considered a Central European Iron Age phenomenon, through the cultures of Hallstatt and La Txne. However, archaeological finds from the Halstatt and La Txne culture were rare in the Iberian Peninsula, in southwestern France, northern and western Britain, southern Ireland and Galatia and didn’t provide enough evidence for a cultural scenario comparable to that of Central Europe. It is considered equally difficult to maintain that the origin of the Peninsular Celts can be linked to the preceding Urnfield culture, leading to a more recent approach that introduces a ‘proto-Celtic’ substratum and a process of Celticisation having its initial roots in the Bronze Age Bell Beaker culture.
The La Txne culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age in eastern France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. It developed out of the Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from Greek, and later Etruscan civilisations. A shift of settlement centres took place in the 4th century.
The western La Txne culture corresponds to historical Celtic Gaul. Whether this means that the whole of La Txne culture can be attributed to a unified Celtic people is difficult to assess; archaeologists have repeatedly concluded that language, material culture, and political affiliation don’t necessarily run parallel. Frey notes that in the 5th century, “burial customs in the Celtic world were not uniform; rather, localised groups had their own beliefs, which, in consequence, also gave rise to distinct artistic expressions”. Thus, while the La Txne culture is certainly associated with the Gauls, the presence of La Txne artefacts may be due to cultural contact and does not imply the permanent presence of Celtic speakers.
The Romans knew the Celts then living in what became present-day France as Gauls. The territory of these peoples probably included the Low Countries, the Alps and present-day northern Italy. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars described the 1-century BC descendants of those Gauls.
Eastern Gaul became the centre of the western La Txne culture. In later Iron Age Gaul, the social organisation resembled that of the Romans, with large towns. From the 3rd century BC the Gauls adopted coinage, and texts with Greek characters from southern Gaul have survived from the 2nd century BC.
Greek traders founded Massalia about 600 BC, with some objects being traded up the Rhone valley. But trade became disrupted soon after 500 BC and re-oriented over the Alps to the Po valley in the Italian peninsula. The Romans arrived in the Rhone valley in the 2nd century BC and encountered a mostly Celtic-speaking Gaul. Rome wanted land communications with its Iberian provinces and fought a major battle with the Saluvii at Entremont in 124–123 BC. Gradually Roman control extended, and the Roman Province of Gallia Transalpina developed along the Mediterranean coast. The Romans knew the remainder of Gaul as Gallia Comata – “Hairy Gaul”.
In 58 BC the Helvetii planned to migrate westward but Julius Caesar forced them back. He then became involved in fighting the various tribes in Gaul, and by 55 BC had been overrun most of Gaul. In 52 BC Vercingetorix led a revolt against the Roman occupation but was defeated at the siege of Alesia and surrendered.
Related Sites for Celts
- BBC Wales – Education – Iron Age Celts read Celts
- The Celts – ibiblio read Celts
- Celts – Crystalinks read Celts
- Celts read Celts